John 20 – Re-surrection/creation

Notes from a sermon preached on 08.03.09

Peter and John & the Empty Tomb
It doesn’t surprise me at all that when Mary found the stone in front of the tomb rolled away that she ran back to Peter and John. It was still dark. Who knows what was going on? If they’d learnt nothing else from the last few days, it was surely that they couldn’t trust anyone. Not the Romans. Not their priests. Not even their friends… Peter, John, someone’s been in the tomb and has stolen our Jesus away…

Peter has always been one to rush in before thinking, and he’s not one to change his ways! Straight away both he and John leg it for the tomb to see what’s going on. John gets there first. He’s the more sensible one, more cautious. He looks in from outside, but won’t go in alone. Peering into the darkness, he makes out strips of linen lying on the ground. Peter doesn’t have the same sense as John, and pushes straight past, bundling into the darkness, not thinking about what or who could be within. Fortunately for Peter, there are no grave robbers or crooks in here, only the strips that John could see, and lying to one side of them, folded, the cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. Nothing else was in there, alive or dead. Just as Mary had said, Jesus had been taken, snatched from his resting place. Finally John plucks up the courage to go in. Now he can see for himself he believes…

I often wondered what that verse meant, ‘He saw and believed’, especially when its followed by a note saying that they still didn’t understand that the Scriptures said he would rise from the dead. The logical answer is that they believed what Mary had told them, that Jesus had been stolen by someone – robbers perhaps, certainly not unknown (that’s why graves were sealed) or perhaps the authorities as one final kick in the teeth aimed at the rebellious King of the Jews.

At the same time though, there’s a hint of a puzzle here, something more than at first meets the eye. The grave clothes are obviously important to John as he writes this many years later. Why does he take the time to describe them so much? What his he trying to say here? What is so significant about them lying separately, the burial head cloth that had been around Jesus’ head folded so neatly?

Why does John not simply say that they believed Mary, if that’s what he meant? Clearly they didn’t run into the grave and suddenly believe in Jesus’ resurrection – I think what they did next would be really quite different if they had done. But by using this loaded word ‘believe’ without further clarification, maybe John is leaving it deliberately vague, hinting again that there’s something going on here, more than meets the eye.

Mary in the Garden
Peter and John head back home. There’s nothing more they can do here. Whoever had disturbed the tomb had gone, and after they had backed the insurrectionist Jesus, they could hardly go to the authorities and complain about the snatching of his body could they! But Mary stays in the garden outside the tomb, crying.

Let me let you into a secret. Kate and I are ‘Desperate Housewives’ fans… There, said it. For those who don’t know there series, it’s about the goings on in a suburban street, Wisteria Avenue, in the US. On the surface, it’s simply and enjoyable soap, following the lives of the glamorous and dysfunctional families that live there. There’s more to it than that though. It’s really an expose, an examination of why we live and behave the way that we do. One of the antagonists in the series is Dave Williams who at first seems a totally sorted kind of guy. But after a while we see him doing all sorts of concerning and strange things – transpires his wife and child were killed in a car crash and he can’t let go…

Mary isn’t able to just let go like Peter and John. Jesus might be gone, but she can’t just go home as if nothing had happened. Seeing him executed was bad enough, but there was no way she could accept that on top of that someone had gone and stolen him. She stands outside weeping, from time to time glancing into the tomb in a kind of denial – perhaps if I look again, it might turn out that he’s there after all. Perhaps Peter and John missed him in the gloom…

All of a sudden there are two figures in the glom, dressed in white, sitting where the body should have been. ‘Woman, why are you crying?’ ‘They have taken my Lord away and I don’t know where they’ve put him’, she replies.

What do you make of this? It’s an odd exchange, strangely matter of fact. Usually if you spot an angel, you fall to the ground in fear! All that Mary does here is answer in a matter of fact way. Nothing is said about her being surprised, or scared, or puzzled. Then as she turns around, she sees another figure in the gardener. Again, ‘why are you crying?’ The same answer – they’ve taken my Lord away. Are you the gardener – perhaps you know where they’ve taken him!’

Perhaps it’s simply that her grief is so overwhelming, that she is unable to see beyond it.

He’s Alive!
When the gardener speaks again, the world changes forever. ‘Mary’

‘Rabboni! Teacher!’ It’s Jesus!
What is it that Jesus had said about himself a few chapters ago? ‘[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice.’ John 10:3-4

Words aren’t really needed at this point. Simply hearing her name in this way was enough. There’s something so wonderful about the Risen Jesus not launching into a speech, declaring his greatness, or laying out some new manifesto or plan. Instead he just says her name. The most important thing to him is his relationship with her. Here is a friend comforting a companion in need. He knows here and he knows what she needs…
There’s something new here as well. I can’t believe that Mary didn’t recognize him. Yes there were tears in her eyes, and she wouldn’t have been expecting to see him there, but he was the one she was crying for. He was the one she was holding on to.

Jesus is not the Jesus they buried in the tomb. He hasn’t just revived, come back to life and stepped out. Something is radically different. Mary doesn’t recognise him, later he miraculously appears in a locked room, not once but twice. He may have a body, but it’s not like ours, and it’s not like his was. This is something new, something that hasn’t been seen before. Why do you think he needs to show the disciples and then Thomas his wounds – these are the proof that he is who he says he is – clearly they’re not totally convinced otherwise.

It doesn’t say as much, but it takes no imagination to see Mary throwing herself at Jesus, embracing him, holding him, clutching on to him – after all, wouldn’t you?

Jesus then says something that has always puzzled me. (17) ‘Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’’ What do you make of that?

Was Jesus worried about the physical effects of her touching him – either for her or for him – just as God wouldn’t let Moses see his face for fear that to do so would be too much? Or is he saying that she needed clutch on to him – he wasn’t going to return to his Father just yet, there would be more times they would meet yet, so she needed hold on to him in case he was snatched away again? I certainly think this makes sense. I also wonder if there’s an element here of him telling her to let go of the Jesus he was, the Jesus that had died on the Cross, to let go of what had been and to grasp instead the new. Don’t look back, look forward. Everything is new! He is not dead, but is returning to his Father! Don’t stay in the tomb, but come out into the garden!

Life in His Name!
John ends this chapter by explaining why he had written his gospel, ‘these [miracles] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.’ (31)

Just as he called Mary out from the Tomb into the Garden, so to he calls us by name, calling us out of death into life. Jesus has risen and life is no longer the same. Live this life in light of the Risen Jesus.

Sometimes I think we’ve made a mistake by talking about The Cross too much. Yes its short hand for Jesus’ death and resurrection, for all that he’s accomplished for us, but the fact that we use a phrase that talks of death to summarise it, The Cross, blinds us to where the story ends, with something new, resurrection.

• We live in our past mistakes
• We live in lives governed by the world around us
• We are content with what is rather than what could be
• We live caught up in the way we were conditioned to see ourselves
• We live locked in for fear of what might happen to us

And yet as he did to Mary, Jesus calls us from the Garden – come out of the tomb, come out of death and chose something new. Choose life. We don’t need to stay bound by these things. They don’t belong to us anymore. Jesus has called us by name and set us free! Believe (it’s that word again) and life is yours for the living.



John 18 – Jesus, Too Hot to Handle

Notes from a sermon preached on 22.02.09pm

Following Jesus is like this…

A man had a desperate desire to fly. He’d seen the Sun and the sky and wanted to feel the freedom of flying amidst the clouds, and to see the Sun closer for himself. Over time he gathered together feathers from the fowl he kept, and with care and dedication, glued them together with wax to make a pair of wings. Finally the day came. He strapped them to his arms and jumped towards the heavens. Flapping his arms as he’d seen the birds do, he tried to fly. Much to the surprise of the onlookers he succeeded, and up, up into the air he lifted! But as he came nearer the inviting yellow globe, the wax in his wings began to soften and change…

On a dark night, the warmth and light of a glowing bulb is attractive, but to the moth who draws close it is a two edged sword, as the light demands total commitment…

Let the person with ears listen!

See, Judas is leading the soldiers to come and take Jesus. They’re large burly men, armed and dangerous. They mean business. Feel the tension crackle in the air as they appear. They’re lead by the chief priests and Pharisees, those who had been speaking out against Jesus. You’ve heard the rumours, talk of retribution and murder. Indeed, Jesus himself has hinted that they are a threat to him. Seems he was right and the talk true. Feel the adrenaline rushing through you. You ready for the attack, but as Jesus is pointed out, the guards don’t rush. No, look, they’re drawing back and falling to the ground!…

Peter skulks outside whilst Jesus is grilled by the High Priest. A warm fire offers heat on the cold night, but you can see that it brings him little comfort. ‘You’re one of his disciples, aren’t you?’ asks a servant girl. Peter answers abruptly, ‘No, I am not.’ You can sense the fear in his voice. What will happen to me if I’m found out? Will I get arrested too if I make my allegiance public?…

Smack! The sound of the bound and helpless Jesus being struck in the face resounds around the room. But is he helpless? Listen to the way his calm replies rattle Annas the high priest, and the others in the room. As they grill him it is obvious that there is one man who is control of the whole situation. He remains calm and honest…

If Pilate were in a graphic novel, then you could see clearly in a bubble what he was thinking. Its hardly needed though. You know he found nothing wrong in what Jesus had done. It is clear, he is innocent of breaking the law. Annoying Jewish leaders maybe – but Pilate could identify with that – nothing would give him more delight than to shut them up himself. But he couldn’t afford to. He needed their support as much as he needed Rome’s. What to do; if he released Jesus that would only cause him trouble in the end?…

Jesus or Barabbas?…

Time and time again in this chapter a choice is offered, to choose Jesus, or to choose an easy life. What is clear is that to choose Jesus is anything but an easy life. To put it bluntly, Jesus was too hot to handle. There’s something about this man that made him attractive. But those who found themselves drawn to him found that life with Jesus was not always as comfortable as they’d expected. In fact, at times it could be downright uncomfortable.

But what is it about this man that made him too hot to handle? Why did the guards draw back and fall to the ground? What did they see in him that caused them to be filled with such awe? Why is Peter afraid of being associated with him? What is it about him that unsettled Annas? What did Pilate think he might do if he released him?
How do we see Jesus?

This particular passage has challenged me afresh about this man. There’s something in human nature that makes us want to box things into categories – perhaps that goes back to naming the animals in the Garden of Eden! If you’re ill you want to know what you’ve got – if an ailment has a name, it is no longer so frightening; it is easier to deal with. It’s the same with people. A stranger has no name. We don’t know who they are, how they might see us, what they might want of us, or do to us.

Over the centuries we’ve tried to give Jesus a box to fit in; Jesus the Teacher, Jesus the Miracle Worker, Jesus the Revolutionary and so on. If we can give him a tag we know what to expect from him.

To many outside the church, Jesus has become Jesus the Good teacher. But who is he to us? What name have we given him?

I suspect that many in the church have made him Jesus the Friend, and indeed he is! Think about some of the passages we’ve looked at recently where we’ve thought about Jesus staying with us, caring for us, concerned for us, sharing his plans with us and seeking to bring us joy. These are all marks of a True Friend.

But there’s a problem with that. By turning Jesus into Jesus the Friend, we’ve made him predictable. Jesus the Friend is not Jesus the Trouble-Maker, nor Jesus the Revolutionary. If Jesus is Jesus the Friend, how can he be Jesus the Righteous or Jesus the God? When was the last time that you found him too hot to handle?

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves if our definition of Friend is big enough. Can Jesus be our friend and still challenge our lifestyles, fill us with awe, and demand our allegiance?

As some of you know, I’m one of the governors at the local school. When I first became a governor they sent me away on a course to find out what that meant. One of the definitions they kept referring to was that we were to be ‘critical friends’ – in other word we were there to help and encourage the school, to care for it and so on as a friend would, but that through having that relationship we were to challenge the school to improve, to seek to point out its weak points as well as its good.

I hate the phrase ‘critical friend’ – it sounds harsh and somewhat clinical – but I like what its trying to say. In many ways it applies to Jesus. He is our Friend – that is clear. One of the major thrusts of the Gospel is to tell us that God cares for us, loves us, is there for us. But the relationship isn’t a niave one or a blind one. God sees us as we are, he knows our weaknesses as well as our strengths. His calling on our lives isn’t all sweetness and life either. He might say, follow me, ‘my yoke is easy and my burden light’ but he also says that we should ‘take up our cross and follow him’. As our God he has every right to challenge us, to look into our souls and demand change. As our God there is every reason why we should draw back and fall to the ground before him. As our Friend he still has that right, but as our Friend we know that when he challenges us, he does it for the right reasons.

Jesus demands so much of us. He demands our loyalty, our time, our resources, our obedience. He calls us to put aside our own desires and needs, and to serve. He calls us away from lives of comfort to lives of change. If we come close to him, he changes our behaviour, our ethics, our ambitions, our dreams even. What’s more, this is public.

I can think of no more unsettling verse than his call for us to take up our cross and follow him. As a friend he calls us to live his life. This costs.

Are we prepared to let the Jesus who turns over tables into our lives as well as the Jesus who feed the Crowd with bread and fish? Are we prepared to welcome the Jesus who spoke to Annas with unwavering honesty as well as the Jesus who said he no longer calls us servants? Are we prepared to say that we know the man who is ridiculed and in trouble for what he has said and done?

As I was preparing this, the news was full of talk about Abu Qatada, the radical Muslim preacher who the Law Courts have finally decided can be thrown out of the UK. His words of revolution has caused outcry and he has been connected to the 7-11 bombings and called a key UK figure in al-Qaeda related terror activity. Jesus never called for terrorism or violence, but in many ways his actions caused him to be seen in a similar way in his days. He too called for a change in the established order and the way in which we see the world. He called for the first to be last and the last to be first. As a radical religious teacher, he too was not afraid to preach a message that would not be universally popular. He too was despised by the authorities of his day.

As I mulled on these thoughts, I also remembered that Jesus called us to continue his work, to be like him. Do we love the world as he did? Do we challenge the world as he did? Are we, his family today, too hot to handle?

John 16 – Our Joy Shall Be Complete

Notes from a sermon preached on the 08.02.09pm

An Englishman, a Frenchman and a Russian were discussing happiness. “Happiness,” said the Englishman, “Is when you return home tired after work and find your slippers warming by the fire.”
”You English have no romance,” said the Frenchman. “Happiness is having dinner with a beautiful woman at a fine restaurant.”
“You are both wrong,” said the Russian. “True happiness is when you are at home in bed and at 4 a.m. hear a hammering at the door and there stand the secret police, who say to you, ‘Ivan Ivanovitch, you are under arrest,’ and you say, ‘Sorry, Ivan Ivanovitch lives next door.’” 

There’s a lot of gloom about at the moment.
The Economy is grim.
The weather is grim.
And to cap it all we’re doing Ecclesiastes in the morning!
Just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, we come to John 16 and the immanent arrest and execution of Jesus…

I remember my Bible College tutor teaching us to preach about the small words of the Bible, and that’s what I want to do today as in the midst of all this depression is a small word, joy.

At first you wouldn’t equate this passage with joy would you. To be honest, the theme that leaps out is not happiness but grief. As you read it, you feel grief that Jesus is going to die. Jesus talks of the grief of the disciples whilst the world rejoices, presumably at his death, and then he starts talking about the unavoidable grief of a woman in labour.

Jesus has a lot of gloom to share with them. He’s talked about the fact that he’s leaving them, that he’s going to be betrayed. Here he picks up what is going to happen to them, the mounting persecution, their being thrown out of the synagogue, even being martyred, with those doing the martyring believing they were glorifying God through it!

I find this really quite touching, if a bit sombre. In the midst of it all, just as he was on the cross itself, Jesus is more concerned about others than himself. Rather than being overwhelmed with his own grief, Jesus is more worried about his disciples. What will happen to them? He knows what it is like to lose a loved one – his tears when Lazarus died were not for show – and he is concerned that the disciples will soon face that same sense of loss.

Most of us have at some time or other have been through bereavement. What is it that you need the most just then? Most of us have been in the difficult position of knowing someone who is in mourning. What can you say? What can you do to help, to make things better? I think it would be fair to say that this is one of the most challenging parts of my job – actually, at the time there isn’t that much you can say.

Possibly the answer is that during such times, what is needed most is someone to sit with you, to be there with you. Not someone with all the answers, but someone who can listen and shows real concern.

Now, obviously Jesus won’t be able to be with the disciples when they mourn – it will be him they’ll be mourning over – but at this point in time, his care for them compels him to do what he can to reassure them that it will be okay, to let them know that he understands, that he is with them.

Of course this continues with us. The risen Jesus, having experienced every aspect of human life, knows what it is like to experience pain and loss, and as we face it today, he faces it with us, feeling it as we feel it, sitting with us. He knows, he understands.

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.’ Romans 12:15

A pastor was so annoyed with boys stealing apples from
his orchard that one day he put up a sign, which read:
‘Don’t steal. For the Lord sees it all.’
The next day some apples were stolen again.
The boys had jotted underneath the sign:
‘Maybe He did. But He did not betray us.’

The truth is though, that knowing someone stands with you in grief might help, but it doesn’t turn the grief into joy does it. But this is the promise that Jesus makes, that ‘their grief will turn to joy’ (20)

Have you ever experienced pain that seems pointless? Not ‘no pain, no gain’, but simply ‘pain, no gain’. That is the worst kind of pain. To the disciples, when Jesus died, they probably felt that. All around them the world rejoiced, celebrating what had just been done, whilst they were left with thoughts of what could have been. What was their pain going to achieve?

But it wasn’t pointless. It had a purpose, just as the pain of a woman in labour. Jesus was going to die for a reason – and he wanted them to know that. They would mourn, but after the night comes day, and after Christ’s death, resurrection. Rising from the grave, death could never touch him again, could never snatch him back. They would regain their joy, only this time it could not be stolen from them again, as Jesus would ever die again. ‘So it is with you: Now is the time of your grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy’ (22).

That’s what you need isn’t it, friends who don’t desert you no matter what happens. That is another mark of a true friend for those of you who were here last week. That’s a source of joy for us. Jesus is always with us, and will never leave us.

There is more to Jesus’ return that will bring them joy though. Now, not only will Jesus never be taken from them again, but also their prayers will have new power. Anything they asked for in his name would be given to them. ‘Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete’ (24). This is a real reversal of fortunes isn’t it? Going from getting nowhere, everything going against you, to getting everything you ask for.

I still wonder though, is that what this passage is really about at its heart? Is it really about the joy that is gained when we get what we want? This doesn’t seem the most Christian attitude does it!

Let’s probe this joy a bit further. Is that really the source of their joy?

{22} ‘…Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. {23} In that day you will no longer ask me anything. I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. {24} Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.’

Sandwiched between verse 22 talking about joy in being reunited with Jesus and verse 24, joy from answered prayer is verse 23 – ‘In that day you will no longer ask me anything.

In the NIV this reads as if the disciples will no longer need to ask Jesus for anything as now they can ask the Father directly in his name. This is misleading. It is actually saying that the disciples will no longer ask Jesus any questions. There will be no need. Seeing the risen Jesus, they will know that all he said about himself was true. Seeing the risen Jesus, they will know that he is God. Seeing the risen Jesus, they will know that he will look after them – a fact that is supported by their receiving in prayer all that they ask for in his name. This is why they will be joyful, because they will have grown in faith.

As Alison wonderfully shared with us this morning, this world will at times be depressing, gut wrenching, painful, and if that was all there was, there would be no joy. But it isn’t.

I believe that our God is a God of humour. God created the belly laugh. God created the pun. God created the kind of laughter that keeps on going until it hurts! Don’t believe me? Have you ever seen an Osterich run – now there’s a bizarre sight! Or what about the duck-billed-platypus. Surely that’s a joke! You’d have to have a sense of humour to create such a thing! He turned water into wine, gave the ancient Sarah a child – she saw the funny side and laughed – gave Jonah a ride in a whale of all things! The top joke of all of course has to be the one Jesus pulled when on Easter Sunday he leapt out and shouted ‘April Fool’s’!

There’s nothing worse is there than being surrounded by people laughing and not quite getting the joke- don’t you hate it! I pray that we’ll get this last joke. It’s only when we realise that this is not all that there is, and that no matter what happens in the here and that an eternal party awaits us – is that not what Jesus promises when he says I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until I drink it with you in my Father’s Kingdom. This wonderful news can sustain us.

Its an occupational hazard in my line of work that you get to know a lot of funeral directors. Do you know what, I’ve realised that the best ones are the ones with a sense of humour. They can have a wicked sense of humour! It’s a survival mechanism. When life is difficult, being able to laugh at it gives you power over it. Christ’s great joke over death and sin, gives us the power to laugh at these two former enemies of ours, and gives us power over them. With heavenly laughter in our souls we can overcome all that this world throws at us.

There is one more thing. At the heart of our passage is relationship. We have Jesus caring for the hurting disciples like a parent a crying child. We have the image of a mother in the pains of labour, relieved by the arrival of her new child, and we have throughout the intimate relationship of the Father and his Son – for example in verse 32: ‘You will leave me all alone. Yet I am not alone, for my Father is with me.

As he prepares to leave them, Jesus is seeking to encourage the disciples to persevere through the coming grief, strengthening them with the knowledge that they are about to become part of his family – that is the reward of faith.

We have already said that when they see the risen Jesus, they will be reassured that he is who he said he is. But that’s not all. When they see the risen Jesus, they’ll know the extent of the Father’s love for him – as it’s the Father who will raise him. Just as the crucifixion is the evidence of God’s love for us, so the resurrection is the evidence of his love of Jesus.

Karl Barth, one of the most famous theologians of recent times said, ‘Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.’ Laughter is a great way to cross barriers, to bring people together. To share a joke, you need two people!

In verse 27, Jesus tells us that as we’ve loved him, so the Father loves us! But how much does he love us? Does he love us as his Son? Or is it just a ‘fond of us’ love, that really doesn’t measure up to much? This is where answered prayer comes in. God answers our prayers in Jesus’ name as he would if his Son asked him. When we ask and receive, our joy does not just come from the fact that we get what we ask for – that isn’t actually so important. Where our joy comes from is realising that this tell us that our Father loves us as much as he loves his Son.

John 15 – I Choose You

Notes from a sermon preached on 01.02.09

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d.

Jesus is approaching his Hamlet moment. It is a time for choices.
To serve or to be served?
To go or to stay?
To accept the cup God was offering him, or to reject it?
This theme is one that runs throughout John’s Gospel.

‘He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…’ John 1:10-12

Jesus, the Word made flesh, has come into the world, the Light. Who will accept him and who will reject him? What choice do we make?

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

John 3:16 God, the Father, has chosen the world and has sent his Son to save us from perishing.

At the heart of this passage is another important choice:

‘You did not choose me, but I chose you…(5:16) 

‘Follow me,’ Jesus demands of Philip at the start of the Gospel, and ‘follow me’ he has demanded of us as we read this books pages. We are given a choice – to accept this call, or to reject it, but this decision starts with God’s choice, his choice of us.

There is a story about a Sunday School teacher was teaching a group of teenage boys one Sunday about Christ’s disciples; about their abilities, their attributes, and why Jesus might have chosen them. Toward the end of the lesson a teenaged boy who was particularly enthralled about the whole concept of calling, of being chosen by God, said, “Teacher, why did Jesus choose Judas?” To which the Sunday school teacher replied, “Son, I don’t know. But I have a harder question. Why did Jesus choose me?”

I don’t know if this was a hard choice for God or not. It certainly was a costly choice – again and again humanity has rejected him, but still he keeps on choosing us. But the most astonishing statement in the Bible is this one, God chose us! God chose us not as who we could be, or because of who he can make us, but God chose us as we are – you , me, warts and all. As it says in Romans 8:15, ‘But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’

There’s something so liberating about that fact. So many of us have nagging doubts about ourselves, low self esteem for whatever reason. If we have the guts, we can throw those accusations away, because God himself has chosen us – chosen you.

I’ve spoken to lots of different people this week. There was a man who phoned me three times to ask if I was the person who ran the website as he had a proposition for me. By the third time to phone went, our conversation was short. Then there is the receptionist at the school – I’m in school quite a lot these days with the children and the work I do with my church hat on. Occasionally, when she’s not too busy I’ll stop and have a chat with her about how things are going, but it tends to be just niceties. I’ve also been having a cross continental chat with Reuben Dove in Sierra Leone as well this week. Some of them have been quite detailed. I try to keep my emails informal so that they don’t become a list of demands, but to be honest we both know that that is what they are, a list of things that Reuben needs to know or do, in order to fulfil his duties as a Agent for the SLM. My favourite conversation of the week, though, was on Thursday night. Kate and I managed to escape for a meal, just the two of us, and we talked non-stop from beginning to end, sharing bits of news, feelings and the things that are important and personal to us.

How do you tell if someone is your friend? There are many marks to a true friend aren’t there. One of the real tests is to ask yourself what do they tell you, and what do they keep to themselves? One mark of a true friend is that they’ll tell you the things that are on their mind, with you the guards go down.

Over the course of the Gospel, Jesus’ relationship with the disciples changes. To start with he’s a teacher, instructing and encouraging them – in a way a bit like the relationship between Reuben and I. At times he gets frustrated and complains about hw they don’t get it, a little like me and the man phoning about the website. But by this point in the Gospel, this has all changed. He has chosen them to be his friends and is sharing with them in an unguarded, intimate way.

There is a Celtic word ‘anamcara’ for such a friendship. It is more than just someone you get on with. An anamcara is your ‘Soul Friend’, a person with whom you resonate, to whom you can open yourself up to, and who in turn can reveal that to you, to show you who you really are, but in a protective, safe, way.

There is a sense here that Jesus is seeking such a relationship with us. This friendship is not just a past thing, something restricted to the disciples, but through the Spirit, the ‘Counsellor’, he is seeking it with us too. He is looking for people with whom he can share his thoughts, feelings and plans, Soul Friends, and he has chosen us.

But just like the Celtic anamcara is more that a nice companion, Jesus is looking for more than just a nice friendship. As we befriend him, he holds up the mirror to us in the way that only a true friend can. As we befriend him, we come to see ourselves as we really are. You see, Jesus has chosen us for a purpose. Let’s go back to verse 16 again and the rest of the sentence: ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last…’

Like any true friend, Jesus wants us, his friends, to have fruitful lives.

To explain this, he uses the image of the vine and the branches. We are the vine branches, and like a real vine branches, he wants us to bear fruit. To produce fruit, we need to remain in him, the vine – who has heard of vine branches that can produce grapes without being connected to a vine with its roots that nourish and strengthen the branches. This is another wonderful image of the nature of the friendship he offers us. If we accept his friendship, then Jesus nourishes us and protects us. Equally, if we fall out of relationship with him, if we separate ourselves from him, then we shall be isolated and vulnerable, and find that our lives become unfulfilled.

But there’s more to this image, there’s also the gardener, God the Father. His job is to tend the vine and its branches in such a way that as much fruit is produced as possible. To do this, Jesus says he has to clear out the dead branches, those that aren’t producing fruit and cut back those that are, so that they produce more fruit.

This pruning of the fruitful branches, reminds me of the anamcara who reveals the real nature of a friend to the friend, so that they are able to build on what is good, and work on that which is not. The Father, through the Spirit prunes our lives, snipping away through experiences and more directly that which is not fruitful in us, so that we become more Christ-like.

This facet intrigues me. God is not demanding that we change or he’ll reject us. He has already chosen us. It is not up to us to produce fruit – our fruitfulness is up to him. He does the cutting back, it is the Spirit that enables us to do good and to be good. Again, this is liberating! All we have to do for this to happen is to remain in him, or as the King James Version puts it, abide in him – which of course takes us back to last week’s sermon and chapter 14 where we thought about Jesus preparing a room in God’s home for us.

But what does this mean? How do we develop our relationship with him? We all know the answers don’t we. Spend time in prayer, read the Bible, go to church. This is what good Christians do isn’t it. But wait a minute, that’s not what Jesus says is it? Listen:

‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.’ John 15:9-12 

To remain in Christ, to enjoy fruitfulness through a good relationship with him, we have to go back to that tough calling of love that Noel challenged us with a couple of weeks ago. To become Christ-like we have to be Christ-like, it is in practising that we’re made perfect. Through loving we learn to love.

‘Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.’ John 15:13 


John 14 – Do not let your hearts be troubled, trust in God

Notes from a sermon preached on 25.01.09pm

Jesus has just told his disciples that he is leaving them.
They’re unsettled, worried.
What are we going to do without him? What is going to happen to him?
Where is he going?

For John’s readers, no doubt these fears were echoed by his readers. There days were uncertain ones as Christians. Times of persecution. What did the future have in store for them? Were they safe? What was going to happen to them?

Jesus’ response – ‘Do not let your hearts be worried. Trust in God, trust also in me’ (v14).

Easily said! Why should we? What does he offer to back this up?

Our Future is Secure in God
To those who didn’t know where they would be in the future – would they be safe, imprisoned, homeless – Jesus said ‘In my Father’s house are many rooms!’

God has somewhere prepared for us. Our future is secure in him.

Nowhere is there a literal description of ‘heaven’, just a series of different metaphors.
We talk of living with God, but here the picture is more than that, it is more intimate. We are invited to come and live with him in his house. His house becomes our home.

I think this is a fantastic metaphor.

A home is somewhere safe – an Englishman’s home is his castle.

A home is somewhere where we are looked after – I remember being ill in my digs at University. All I wanted to do is go home and be cared for.

A home is somewhere where we can be ourselves. Most of the time we spend wearing different masks – a face for work, a face for church, a face for our friends and so on. We take time to present to them the person we want them to know us as through our dress, our actions our speech. We also take care to shield from them the bits we don’t want them to see – bits we are embarrassed about, or worried about how they would react to us. At home, we can take off our masks and be simply ourselves. We don’t need to take time to put on a mask – our family know who we are, sometimes better than ourselves. We don’t have to hide away our quirks or embarrassing secrets, as our family are there for us.

A home is somewhere we belong. We might go to work, but that isn’t where we belong. We might go to the shops, or the pub or the cinema, but these are not places where we belong. We keep coming back home – that is the place where we start the day and the place we end the day.

Genesis recognises the importance of home when it talks about marriage. It notes that when the two become one, the man leaves his parents and makes a new home with his wife. It notes it because this is such a dramatic change in their lives.

We have a home with God secure for us, a place where we will be safe, where we belong, where we can be ourselves, a place where we are cared for.

Jesus is Taking Us There
The second thing that Jesus tells them to bring them security is that Jesus is going to take them to their new home, going to take them to God.

What is the difference between a house and a home? It’s the nature of the relationships that there are in it. The room that Jesus goes to prepare for us is not simply a place where we shall live, a house, but a home.

It is impossible for us to get to know God on our own. He’s invisible, unknowable in so many ways, so beyond us, greater than us, bigger than us. Ecclesiastes says as we looked at a few weeks ago, that God has set eternity in our hearts. There is a instinctive feeling that surely there must be more than this, that there must be something or someone else out there God. Throughout time, people has expressed this through religion – humanities attempts to reach out to God. But it is impossible for us to reach him – the fate of the Tower of Babel is a monument to the futility of that quest.

How can the house God has prepared for us become a home when we can’t have a relationship with him as we’ve never seen him and can’t comprehend him? Jesus tells us that he is the answer, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him’ (6-7).

Jesus is the exact imprint of his Father, in his will, his desires, in his character. He looks and acts just like his Dad. The fact that they’d seen God though him, means that they could relate to God, be at home with him. This is one of the many reasons why it is so important for us to read the Bible. The disciples could get to know what God the Father was like by watching and listening to Jesus, The Son. Clearly Jesus is no longer with us – but as we read its pages, Jesus steps out of its pages so that we can see him once more.

This home though, is not just a future thing though, in a very real way, God invites us into his home now. Jesus says, ‘If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him’ (23). If we demonstrate our trust in him today – and by trust I mean not simply saying I believe, but living as if you believe – then our Heavenly Father will come and dwell with you.

Our hearts needed be worried, but we can trust in God because our future is secure in him and because Jesus is going to take us to that future by making God known to us.

Jesus is Sending the Spirit
The third reason we don’t need to let our hearts be worried, and can trust in God instead is that there is a reason for Jesus leaving his disciples. He was not just going to prepare a room for us, but also so the Spirit could be sent to us.

The word for the Spirit used here is the Counsellor. In Greek it is paraclete, meaning one who comes alongside. Another key word in Greek here is the word used for another. It means another of exactly the same kind. The Spirit is not simply like Jesus, he is exactly like Jesus. The Spirit is divine as Jesus is divine as the Father is divine. We can relate to him exactly as the disciples related to Jesus. In fact this is why it was so important that Jesus went allowing the Spirit to come. Only a handful could relate to Jesus at any one time – but through the Spirit is able to live with all of us at the same time.

We have not been abandoned as orphans, left relationshipless, but the Spirit has come so that we can continue to have a relationship with the Father and the Son.

The Spirit comes to reassure us of our future hope in God.
The Spirit comes to remind us what Jesus has taught us – in him as well as the Bible, Jesus comes alive before our eyes, of course it is through the Spirit that we hear in a living way what God says to us through the Bible.

There is one more aspect to the gift of the Spirit. The Spirit comes to bring us peace.

How do we make peace?
We strive to provide for ourselves. We seek to control our lives and what happens to us. Again, as we’ve been reading in Ecclesiastes in the mornings, this is a futile task. We cannot control the world, determine what happens to us and around us. The Teacher might say, trying to make peace is like chasing after the wind, meaningless!

But in the Spirit, God is with us. With the Spirit we know our relationship with him is secure no matter what happens to us. With the Spirit we know that our future is secure. These things are in the safe hands of God – and this knowledge can bring us real peace.

Jesus’ Example
Of course it is one thing for us to sit hear tonight and nod away agreeing with all of this. But agreeing with it is not enough. Jesus calls us to trust in him, to base our lives on this faith.

Perhaps the final thing to encourage us to trust in God is Jesus’ example.
Jesus sees what is to come. No doubt he was uncertain, worried etc.
Sometimes fear, concern etc. can paralyse us. End up doing nothing out of fear for what could be…

But how does he finish this conversation? He says, ‘Come let us go.’

Do not let your hearts be troubled, says Jesus, trust in God, trust also in me.


Visble Symbols of a God Unseen

In John 14:15-21 Jesus is with his friends sharing their last meal. Soon he would be arrested, tried on very dubious grounds, flogged and crucified. As they talked Jesus warned them that very soon he would be leaving them, but not to worry because he would send another like him to comfort them, to guide them – to be his Presence with them – the Holy Spirit. The World very soon would not see him, but through the
Spirit they would.

The same is true today. We still wait the return of Jesus. He is no longer on the earth. But the Good News is that we know him, and ‘see’ him, because he lives in us by that same Spirit.

With the gift of the Holy Spirit comes a responsibility. It is through those first disciples that the world would come to know Jesus, and the church be born and grow. Today it is our responsibility to keep on showing the world Jesus through our words and deeds – our love. I found this quote recently ‘they are interested in visible symbols of a God unseen.’ The person who wrote it was talking about the writings of the Bible, but it is just as true of people today. People long for symbols of our unseen God…